The queer scene in Newcastle has a proud, yet turbulent history. Insofar as venues that catered to LGBTIQ-identifying people, The Star Hotel was probably the loudest and proudest. The hotel is fondly remembered by 70s kids as a broadly inclusive place, and patrons cherished the sense of community. Of course, the famous Star Hotel Riot happened when the venue closed down and resentful patrons clashed with police.

From here, the scene in Newcastle has ebbed and flowed with patronage, political will and the availability of venues willing to host us.

More recently, Newcastle has relied on The Wickham Park Hotel, Unity and The Gateway Hotel to provide a place for queer people to meet and have fun. Unity, based at the Sydney Junction Hotel and then the Crown and Anchor Hotel, closed in 2014 after only two years of operation.

The Wickham Park Hotel was a prominent location for lesbians in the 1990s, however it appears that there have not been any regular LGBTIQ events there for a long time. I have heard that it is still a popular haunt for gay women who don’t go to The Gateway, and that ‘Back to the Wicko’ music events are held occasionally.

The Gateway Hotel continues today with their dedicated ‘Plum Nightclub’ running on Saturdays and ‘Drag Trivia’ on Thursdays.

In terms of other venues, The Loft Youth Centre was well-known for its support for LGBTIQ youth. Though it was much loved – and performed fairly well for a council asset – it was closed in 2014 before the building was sold in 2015. No central service replacing this has been offered by Newcastle City Council.

As it stands, The Gateway has a monopoly on queer patronage – and disgruntled patrons believe that the management knows it and acts accordingly. A petition has appeared online that accuses The Gateway of failing to maintain its standards as an accredited queer safe space. Over 200 people have signed the petition, which calls on ACON to revoke the venue’s accreditation.

“We the community are outraged by the treatment of the LGBTIQ community by the current management of The Gateway Hotel,” the petition states.

It goes on to allege: “staff, patrons and the community at wide has [sic] been targeted by hate, both verbal and physical by the current management and a majority of their staff.”

It is understood that this is not the first time that the venue has run afoul of its patrons. If The Gateway isn’t pulling its weight and is failing the community- what does this mean for Newcastle? Are we a town without a single gay bar?

I talked to prominent Newcastle drag queen Amber Dextrous about the current controversy, and what this means for queers in Newcastle. “It started when some of the crowds that were drawn from the Small Ballroom next door didn’t mingle well with the existing gay crowd,” she says.

“There were a few minor incidents during this time, however the bands that caused these issues were banned and we all moved along.”

Amber goes on to recount: “Then in July, a long-time staff member of over 16 years was assaulted verbally and physically in what I can only describe as a direct attack on their gender and sexuality.”

“The victim was removed from the premises while the perpetrator was allowed to stay. While I understand the current climate of safe spaces becoming more mixed environments, the way in which incidents have been handled in the pub are negligible at best, in my opinion.”

“Many queens, members of the LGBTIQ community and their allies have all expressed stories voicing that they don’t feel safe in the venue, and the comments are generally ignored or deleted if posted on their page.”

The impetus for the petition has come after Amber Dextrous and several others were purged from The Gateway for comments made about the venue on Facebook.

A friend of Amber’s was removed from the venue on New Year’s Eve and banned. When he called the management for an explanation, he was allegedly “met with a barrage of abuse including such terms as ‘faggot’,” according to Amber.

“It doesn’t fill me with joy to be petitioning to have our only gay venue’s safe space accreditation removed, quite the opposite,” Amber lamented. “It is with utter sadness and frustration that Newcastle’s oldest LGBTIQ venue has come to this.”

“Well, if these claims are true, it is disgusting behaviour by a club that claims to be an ally to the LGBTIQ community,” NUSA Queer Convener Hayden Nichols said in response to the allegations.

“Safe spaces are important to ensure that members of our community know that there are places they can connect with others, be themselves and have fun without having to worry about their safety.”

I got in contact with The Gateway to get their perspective on the issue, especially regarding the use of queer slurs by management. “There is absolutely no substance to these allegations of staff referring to patrons or employees this way, nor would this language be accepted in our hotel in general,” The Gateway claimed.

“The recent controversy stems from several disgruntled sub-contractors (performers) after being removed from our staff roster due to their inappropriate comments on Facebook.”

“We will simply not tolerate it, nor would any other hotel.”

“The Gateway Hotel is and will remain to be a safe space for the LGBTIQ community. Just because we let go of sub-contractors does not change our commitments to ACON’s safe space guidelines.”

“We are 100% committed to the safety of our LGBTIQ patrons,” the hotel says of its record. “If and when an incident may arise we ensure it is dealt with in the correct manner, we will not hesitate to remove or ban someone from our hotel if they cause problems.”

Amber Dextrous contends that the performance of her petition disproves that assertion, describing it as “an amazing effort from what is essentially a small and somewhat fractured community.”

“Some people signing are also adding their own stories which I think is helping to increases momentum,” Amber said.

Where does this leave things for The Gateway, and for queer people in Newcastle more broadly? If the safe space accreditation was removed, this would mean that the only LGBTIQ venue in Newcastle that fails to meet standards for safety, respect and inclusion. This would obviously be a disastrous blow for the community.

“I’ve been part of this community for a while now, and the one thing I can say is that the LGBTIQ community of Newcastle is resilient,” Amber proudly states, “I think it’s from the salty air.”

“I’ve witnessed many venues disappear over the years, and when this happens, the community fractures a little temporarily – but it always rises back to it’s feet.”

“But for some of the younger kids, this is all new. When The Loft and Unity both fell, they still had The Gateway to come to; this will be their first time experiencing not having a safe space, and that concerns me.”

“I think we will see a few monthly parties and the like at other friendly venues until someone realises the value and need our community has for a venue and jumps on board wholeheartedly.”

The Gateway remains steadfast in continuing business as usual. “Over the past twelve months, some major changes – both renovations and events – have been made throughout the Hotel in preparation for 2017,” they said.

“This year we are stepping it up. Both the LGBTIQ and wider community can expect to see some amazing shows and entertainment in our venue.”

“One simply has to look at our NYE photo album to see that nothing has changed regarding our commitment to the community.”

Regardless of the outcome of Amber’s petition, it is apparent that there needs to be a more open channel of communication between the management of The Gateway and its patrons. Writing off complaints and criticism as trash talk is clearly not on.

I think we will all agree that the need for a safe and inclusive space for LGBTIQ people in Newcastle is much more important than some comments on social media.

Cover image from the Gateway Hotel’s Facebook page.